From 24–26 September, the Gold Coast played host to COBA 2023, the annual convention hosted by the Customer Owned Banking Association. This year’s theme was ‘Lead with Purpose’ and aimed to equip attendees with insights and best practices on driving positive change in the financial sector. With 55 Australian mutual banks and credit unions in attendance, the three-day event saw upwards of 900 executives, innovators, and thought leaders come together to celebrate all that the sector stands for today while preparing for the future. The major topics that were discussed at COBA 2023 are recapped below.
Customer-owned banks today: Purpose-led, agile and community-minded
When it comes to purpose, the customer-owned banking sector is singularly focused on serving its members. Putting people first in this way allows customer-owned banks to serve communities with a certain genuineness that big banks just cannot. Just as being small allows customer-owned banks to be purpose-led, it also allows them to be agile. This means moving faster on opportunities and navigating challenges more deftly, which can be advantageous especially with the current wave of disruption showing no sign of slowing down.
Industry leaders at the convention called for customer-owned banks to unite as a wider community and work together especially as the forces of change continue to shape not just the financial sector, but the world in general.
State of play: Today’s volatile market
The dynamic nature of the market underpinned nearly all conversations at this year’s convention. The sector, as a whole, acknowledged the high expectations customers have of organisations they chose to do business with. Not just in terms of their experience or quality of service, but also in terms of organisations’ ESG priorities.
Security and compliance are especially a concern as the recent increase in security lapses has created a trust crisis in the business world. With more data being shared than ever before, customers want to hear what measures organisations are taking to safeguard their privacy.
Key topics discussed
There were several big ideas to unpack in light of recent technological breakthroughs and how the sector is continuing to evolve.
1. Purpose and authenticity
Lisa MacCallum, Founder and Chief Strategist of Inspired Companies, former Vice President at Nike, and a leading expert in corporate reputation and purpose-driven business performance shared with attendees that businesses today are answerable not only to the CEO as we know them, but the ‘new CEO’ collectively represented by Customers, Employees, and Outsiders. It alludes to the point that companies no longer operate in their own bubble but are part of the broader social and cultural fabric.
As the sector navigates this new era, MacCallum said that being guided by purpose is more important than ever as is having clarity of what you stand for as an organisation. She said having a clear message based on values, consistency, courage, and conviction should be the focus for the sector that has always put its customers first.
2. Security: An ever-growing concern
Cyber crime cost businesses around the world $8.5 trillion this year and in 2025 that number will increase to $10.5 trillion according to Gartner. Speakers stressed that as cyber crime continues to turn into an existential threat for businesses, cybersecurity needs to become everyone’s concern and a shared, organisation-wide responsibility. It can no longer be treated as just an IT issue. It was also interesting to hear how ‘humans’ play every role in the cyber security realm: we are at once the attacker and the attacked, the creator and the user, and its success and failure.
The speakers agreed that cybersecurity awareness is not just about spotting threats, it’s also about making people comfortable with technology enough to ensure that people can naturally get better at differentiating what is normal and what is out-of-the-ordinary when it comes to digital interactions. It was acknowledged that education about risks needed to be adapted for users with varying levels of cyber savvy.
Most talks on the topic of security touched on how no one customer-owned bank was fighting this fight alone. The takeaway was that coming together as one can help the sector strengthen its cyber defences more effectively. It was also noted that the industry needs to look beyond its own periphery, to its wider ecosystem, and assess third-party providers that it works with more critically when it comes to security and compliance.
Lastly, with the threat landscape changing every day, leaders called upon businesses to be agile in their approach to cyber security. Especially as AI and deep fake technology create a whole other frontier in the war against cyber crime.
3. Data Privacy: An evolving relationship
The silver lining in all this is that banks, especially customer-owned banks, have retained the trust of customers. In fact, research by Roy Morgan found that customer-owned banks, as a group, were the most trusted banks in Australia.
To maintain status quo, the sector needs to continue to strengthen its customer connection. Whether that’s by allowing customers to talk to a real person when they are concerned or finding opportunities to educate customers on risks. Not only does this allow the sector to remain transparent and accessible, it helps customers help the sector.
In the current climate, privacy is even more important than customer-service or access to tailored products. Customer-owned banks have to start approaching data privacy as the customer’s fundamental right. Mirroring this, is the Privacy Act Review, which will see over 150 new recommendations related to how data is collected, handled, and stored. Customer-owned banks will need to start strategising how these will be managed and prioritised based on the weightage they carry because customers no longer have the appetite for their information living on in databases long after they are needed only for cyber criminals to get their hands on them.
While the sector has it work cut out for the year ahead, it is not all doom and gloom. Relief is on the way with the national digital identity project sure to address challenges in the mostly analogue identification systems that the sector relies on today.
4. AI excellence: Seizing the opportunity
Since exploding on the business scene in late 2022, AI has been on leaders’ minds everywhere. As one of the fastest growing tech sectors, AI and its related technologies can no longer be ignored by organisations, especially in highly regulated sectors such as finance, healthcare, and professional services. In fact, organisations need to take the ‘unknown’ by the horns and learn to harness it for their advantage.
As with anything where there is no precedent or the outcome is largely uncertain, conversations about risk versus reward need to take place. The industry needs to come together as it breaks new ground in adoption of AI-related innovation and goes on to pursue AI excellence in the future. This is where industry events like COBA can make a real difference by enabling the industry to form close bonds and helping leaders lean on each other during times of disruption.